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Mayor Adrian Fenty loves to portray himself as an aggressive politician. “Washingtonians are cognizant of the problems of the past, inspired by recent momentum, but hungry for more improvement,” Fenty said during his Jan. 3 inaugural address.
When the mayor hires his top officials, he delivers clear instructions: Work insane hours, be ready for pings on your BlackBerry, make a difference.
Last week, a senior-level Fenty appointee resigned his post in protest. The reason? His boss wimped out.
Until last week, Merrit Drucker served as director of the mayor’s Office of Community Services and Relations. He quit when it became clear that Fenty would not back an aggressive approach to enforcing city codes.
The program in question is known to bureaucrats as Operation Fight Back—multi-agency compliance sweeps targeting specific blocks and designed to ensure that District businesses, housing, and neighborhoods are in line with city codes. The idea is to focus the full force of the city’s regulatory and crime fighting authorities on a single geographic area.
In Drucker’s telling, Fenty caught some flack about the program and bagged it.
“He sent me a short e-mail letting me know that the administration would no longer be using Fight Backs,” says the 55-year-old Drucker, who never had a face-to-face meeting with the mayor on the matter. Fenty, he said, decided to step up the use of the gentler “Fix-it” program, which focuses on clean-up, maintenance, and educating business and apartment owners about city codes.
For Drucker, who served as Clean City coordinator for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, curtailing the Fight Backs is a surrender to urban decay.
“The problems are too serious,” says Drucker of the lingering blight on some city neighborhoods. “I was not going to be a toothless lapdog.”
Drucker also knew that without Fenty’s support for Fight Backs, the regulatory muscle he hoped would help clean up the seedier sections of the city would be removed from his arsenal. “I felt I was not going to get mayoral backing on this,” he says. “It feels extremely disappointing.”
Drucker’s frustration was compounded by what he suspects was the influence of parochial politics in easing code enforcement.
The Fenty stand-down order came after Drucker was called to the mat by the councilmember from Ward 1, Jim Graham. As reported last week in the Washington City Paper (Show & Tell, “Fight Back Backlash”), Graham raised objections to Fight Back operations that had occurred in two Ward 1 neighborhoods. Drucker, furthermore, was poised to do additional sweeps in the area.
“Ward 1 is problematic,” says Drucker. “When I became Clean City coordinator, I saw significant problems in Ward 1. I was shocked to find we still have these horrific conditions [there],” says Drucker. “So I put together a Fight Back schedule that I thought we were going follow.” But after a sweep near the corner of 9th and U Streets NW, Drucker and Graham sat down for a little chat.
“He seemed extremely angry that we had conducted the Fight Back on 9th Street,” says Drucker, a hard-driving former Army infantry officer. “Graham said we were targeting immigrants who can’t defend themselves.” The meeting was more a scolding than discussion. “It was hard to get a word in edgewise,” says Drucker.
But Graham claims he played no role in Drucker’s departure from the government and that his concerns were related to the reach of the Fight Backs. “I did not, nor did any one on my staff, convey any message concerning Merrit to the mayor,” says Graham. “In fact, I was genuinely surprised when I was told about [the resignation].” Graham even blames “someone else who still has a job in the government” for what he terms the regulatory “dragnet.”
It’s not so surprising that a government regulatory sweep on 9th Street would get Graham fired up. The councilmember has a special place in his heart for the revitalized area that many refer to as Little Ethiopia.
In 2004, Graham took a fact-finding trip to Ethiopia with a helping hand from Ethiopian merchants. According to the Washington Post, Graham’s airfare for the trip was paid by Ethiopian Airlines. Community activists told the Post that Sheraton Hotels and Resorts provided free accommodations for his stay in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
And if Graham was out to stick up for his Ethiopian friends, he certainly has the tools to make things happen. Williams administration veterans from two different agencies say Graham had a few signature ways of squeezing what he wanted out of the bureaucrats. If bullying didn’t work, he would copy e-mail exchanges with department heads to other key officials. The idea here was to lay bare the incompetence of an official he was grappling with.
A lot of times, these sources say, agency heads gave in on the little stuff just to appease Graham. But when Graham, or any other councilmember, tried to direct big policy changes, upper-level bureaucrats knew then City Administrator Robert Bobb or Operations Chief Herb Tillery had their backs.
Drucker had an inkling this wasn’t the case with his boss. While Drucker was grappling with Graham over Fight Backs, Drucker’s ward coordinators, who had previously worked in the field, were relocated to the John A. Wilson Building in order to field calls from constituents under a more watchful eye. The move happened despite Drucker’s objections.
“It signifies a shift to a more reactive model,” says Drucker, “and away from proactively searching the ward before the problems are reported.” The attention of his old staff will be focused on those residents “who are the most active and interested,” not necessarily on constituents most in need of help. “You can’t lead from behind a desk,” he says. “You need to spend a lot of time in alleys and in stairwells.”
The mayor doesn’t share Drucker’s perception that Fight Backs are now passé. “We are still doing Fight Backs,” Fenty says in a statement. His compliance team has “just added Fix Its to the things the Community Services and Relations folks are working on.”
Drucker’s departure ends a long professional partnership. In 2001, when just-elected Ward 4 councilmember Fenty was the pretty-boy newcomer on the D.C. political scene, he quickly generated buzz with his nonstop attention to the quality of life concerns of his Ward 4 constituents. One of his executive-branch cohorts in that effort was Drucker, who worked out of the 4th District police station as Mayor Williams’ Ward 4 constituent-service coordinator.
Fenty didn’t seem to have a problem with Operation Fight Back then.
“We did quite a few [Fight Backs] in Ward 4” after the program was instituted in 2003, says Drucker. “Many conditions were very bad. Unlicensed businesses, rat infestation, people living in abandoned buildings—all of the conditions that reflected the collapse of the regulatory scheme before Mayor Williams was elected,” says Drucker. “We did enormous amounts of blight elimination. It was tonnage. Cleaning up Ward 4 was an industrial operation.”
Now that Drucker is out of the government, he has no plans to stop cleaning up the city as a private citizen. “I’m going to be very aggressive to make sure the city is clean and safe,” says Drucker, who plans to file regular reports with government agencies as he catalogs various regulatory infractions around the city. “The laws and the regs don’t belong to the government,” he says. “They are on the books for the people. I’ve got no problem being called a pain in the ass or a gadfly.”
For some political busybodies in the city, Fenty’s 2006 electoral landslide was a signal that voters were finished with the aging D.C. political order. Finally, a mayor who would dispense with the graying crowd that came to power under Marion S. Barry and managed to operate at the fringes of government, regardless of who was in charge.
But one stalwart of the old order has perhaps found a way to hang on. For five years, H.R. Crawford has represented the District on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Board. Crawford is a classic old-line D.C. pol, a former three-term Ward 7 councilmember with close ties to Barry. Following his years in public service, Crawford has made a nice living as a developer of mixed-income housing.
And Fenty wants him off the airports board. In January, Fenty nominated buddy Earle Horton to the position.
At which point, Crawford called in his chits with council Chairman Vincent Gray. The all-powerful chairman has refused to schedule a hearing on Horton’s appointment. Gray, also a Ward 7 old-timer, is sticking up for Crawford and has told Fenty as much.
“The chairman did express his concerns,” says Gray’s chief of staff, Dawn Slonneger. “However, Mr. Fenty didn’t say, ‘Oh you are right.’ He did not withdraw it.” Slonneger says Gray has no plans to act on Horton’s nomination. The nomination will expire at the end of this week, at which time the mayor must resubmit a nomination.
Gray’s support for Crawford isn’t about cronyism. It is a simple matter of civic pride. If Crawford is granted another four-year term, he’ll be in line to be the next chairman of the multi-jurisdictional board. That would make Crawford the first African-American man to lead the group.
Crawford would not comment on the matter but has made no secret of his desire to continue his service on the airport board.
For Fenty loyalist Terry Lynch, Crawford is exactly the type of hanger-on who should have seen the writing on the wall after the 2006 election. “He is so far from the Fenty world, [it’s] almost a different planet,” says Lynch. “Nobody is guaranteed a lifetime sinecure,” says Lynch. The council should “vote him up, vote him down, and move on. That’s what elections are about.”
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